Photographer Neal Slavin on what draws him to capturing group portraits

Neal Slavin's group portraits

In a 50-year career, photographer Neal Slavin has taken pictures for Esquire, Rolling Stone and Oprah magazines. But he’s best known for his group portraits -- images of people gathered with their tribe, their class or club. And now, a new retrospective of Slavin’s work shows what a powerful portrait it is of all of us.

“What happens when a group of people come together for a photograph?” asked “CBS This Morning” co-host Anthony Mason.

“The first thing that happens is a commemoration of some kind. But when an organization or a club gets together for a picture, it’s a celebration,” Slavin said. 

Slavin has been photographing groups for more than four decades -- like the custodial staff at Stonehenge, a group of pug owners in New York, and the masseuses at the Elizabeth Arden salon.

Staff of Stonehenge National Monument Neal Slavin

At New York’s Laurence Miller Gallery, the centerpiece of the new exhibition, “Neal Slavin: A 40 Year Chronicle of Groups and Gatherings,” is a portrait of New York hot dog vendors.

Sabrett Hot Dog Vendors Neal Slavin

“I love the four faces of these men,” Slavis said. 

“One thing I love about this photograph is you would probably never take those four faces and put them together in any other circumstance,” Mason said.

“No, no,” Slavin agreed. ”They sell hot dogs. That’s their togetherness.”

Many of his pictures have been taken with a giant 20-by-24-inch polaroid camera. He started focusing on the subject in 1973.  

“It’s just something about it just struck me, and I said,’I gotta do this,’” Slavin said.

His first shot was the International Twins Association in Muncie, Indiana. 

“And after that picture, that was it. That really clinched it for me,” Slavin said. “People say they’re funny, they’re quirky. They’re filled with humor. For me, they’re filled more with sociology.” 

He also shared the story behind his photograph of the Electrolux Vacuum Cleaner sales convention, which he captured in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1974. 

Electrolux, A Consolidated Foods Company Neal Slavin

“In order to be invited to the convention and get to wear a blue jacket, you have had to at that time sold $50,000 worth of vacuum cleaners,” Slavin explained. “As you noticed, all the wives are seated.”

“Yes,” Mason said. 

“It’s a sociological document, like a time capsule of how we felt at that time,” Slavin said.

A lot of work goes into each picture.  

“We photographed the New York Stock Exchange in back of you. We worked 14 hours just lighting it,” Slavin said. “I had something like five minutes or less to photograph them just before the bell rang, and somehow we got it.” 

New York Stock Exchange Neal Slavin

“You can’t make a moment like this happen,” Mason said. 

“You can’t. This only happened in one frame,” Slavin said.

It happened the day he shot a group of zookeepers in Britain. 

“Suddenly, the elephant just put his trunk down and gave him a kiss on his cheek. And I saw it, and I said, ‘I can’t believe it.’ And I just pressed the button,” Slavin said.

“And you’ve continued to do this throughout our career?” Mason asked.

“After I finish each series, I say, ‘No more,’” Slavin said. 

But again and again, Slavin has been drawn back to how we look when we gather in groups.

“I think it’s a very affirming experience just to look at all these groups. And you get this feeling of, ‘This is humanity,’” Slavin said.

Slavin’s show runs until the end of the year at the Laurence Miller Gallery. The New York Times called it one of “four not-to-miss photography shows” in the city this holiday season.